Monday, 31 October 2016

31st October 1984

Ten days ago a movie was released in India called 31st October 1984. I read the review in the newspaper we order from India. ( Reading on line doesn't satisfy the urge to have newsprint smudged fingers!) The movie is about a family caught in the riots that were the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in Indian political history. The review set me thinking about that long ago day, 31st October 1984.
I've often read that when John F Kennedy was assassinated, people asked each other "Where were you when you heard the news? What were you doing? Who told you?"  31st October 1984, thirty two long years ago, was the day when India's first and only female Prime Minister to date was assassinated by her own body guards, at her residence in New Delhi. The day stands out very starkly in my mind and all that followed is clearly embedded there too, so I'm putting it down here and I hope others will feel free to share their memories too.
31st October 1984, Wednesday morning: My dad was in the Indian army and had been recently  posted to our home town, Pune. We had not been allotted our authorised accommodation yet and so we lived in a palace! Yes, a palace had been converted into an Officer's Mess and the temporary accommodation for officers and their families was on the first and second floor. Though we did not have a huge area to live in, what we had was the epitome of luxury! Black and white marble tiles in the bathroom and a marble bath tub! A smooth. red and black tiled floor in the living area and a large terrace whose floor was inlaid with multi coloured china chips was part of our domain and it overlooked an immaculately maintained garden. A steep, spiral wrought iron staircase led to our house. It was actually Sethna Palace's fire escape but that was what we had access to, in order to reach our house, as the main staircase was part of the Officer's Mess and therefore forbidden to us. And so it was from this grand and very secure environment that my sister and I left for school that day in 1984.
I was in third grade, one of the class toppers and the apple of my teacher's eye. ( I was the only student invited for her wedding a few months later!)  Most of us, in turn, adored her, bright, bubbly young thing that she was, yet to be bogged down by the toll that a career in teaching takes from most great teachers. Our Prime Minister was shot down at around 9:15 am that morning and the news was kept under wraps for a while, until a chain of command could be established at the centre.
Those were the days of very poor communication in India and most people did not even have land lines while cell phones, obviously, were unheard of.  We were in the middle of a regular working day and maybe around noon the news trickled in into school. The teacher from the neighbouring classroom rushed into our class and quickly whispered the news into our teacher's ear. Our ever smiling teacher burst into tears and began sobbing. When we loudly chorused " What happened, Miss?", we were told straightaway that the Prime Minister had been shot. ( We did not even know the word assassination then!). When you are eight or nine years old, there are few things more upsetting in your life than the adult in charge losing control and panicking. Our teacher then began feeling faint. ( Did she actually faint, fellow Helenites who were in my class?) . She was led out by the other teacher and we heard the unmistakable sound of the latch being shot into the bolt from outside! For the first time in our young lives, we had been locked inside the classroom...
Then there was complete mayhem. Most of us began crying and someone mentioned India would go to war with our neighbouring country. Note that we had NO clue who had taken responsibility for the assassination but sadly even as kids we were quick to conclude our dear neighbour was somehow involved. (They were NOT involved !). When I heard the word war I began sobbing even louder as it was immediately obvious to me that my Dad would have to go and fight at the border. There was absolutely no logic to this conversation but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and we had all turned into a bunch of cry babies at the very thought of those unheard shots in far away Delhi. Young though we were, we were smart enough to understand even then, that there would be repercussions of this dastardly deed and none of them would be good.
School was let out early leading to even more chaos as there had been no time to inform all the parents about the early dismissal. No handy WhatsApp groups in those days... Fortunately for us, our army truck which was our school bus, was waiting to pick us up. We had been told that a few days of holidays had been declared by the government and so school would remain closed indefinitely.
Finally we reached home safely through rapidly emptying streets That evening my parents went out to Main Street in Army cantonment area ( In retrospect couldn't they have just stayed at home? Was it even safe to go out?) and bought lots of books for us to read from our favourite second hand book store, which exists to this day and which I make a point to visit during my annual sojourn to my home town. So though it was a very dark and sad period for my country, I have memories of long, languorous, slightly chilly November mornings where I lay in bed, snuggled up under a quilt and read to my heart's content. I always associate this period with Enid Blyton's St.Clare's school stories, as one of the books my mother bought on 31st October was from that series and which was to become a hot favourite with me. The human mind is so funny when faced with trauma, no matter how far removed,  that today I cannot think of Indira Gandhi without thinking of the O' Sullivan twins, Pat and Isabel, the main characters of the series. They were my escape from the reality that the Northern part of my country was burning and innocent Sikh families were being slaughtered, just because the body guards responsible were from that community. It was hard for our mother to shield us from the dire news pouring in day in and day out, more so because we were surrounded by army officers who had their own, efficient communication channels.
We went back to school after a ten day holiday, this time under armed escort. The orders had come from above that all army vehicles could move around only with at least one armed soldier and so our bus too had its own gun bearer, with bullets in his pocket, to be loaded at a moment's notice, if needed. We all touched the unloaded gun and fingered the shining bullets. By this time, all thoughts of war had fled from our flighty minds and we looked upon the gun as a new and exciting development and we felt special... How many others could boast their school transport had an armed body guard?
So if you were living in India then, do tell me  where you were on 31st October 1984. I'd love to read about your memories of that day, which changed the course of Indian history, destroyed and shattered many lives and forced many people of a particular community to immigrate from India. For many of them, it was 1947 all over again...



                                              Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
                                                                 (Pic from the net.)

Monday, 24 October 2016

Catching Up With Friends (Or Their Kids) From Three Countries!

We have had guests popping in and out of our house for the last couple of weeks! Call it a coincidence or call it God's plan to distract us from the admission issue, look beyond our own problems and spend some time away from the second and final legal fight we, a huge group of affected parents, put up in India in the Supreme Court (and lost!). The Chief Justice of India assigned the writ petition hearing to the same judge who had thrown out the colleges case the first time around and who had been instrumental in pushing the national level medical entrance exam exam through at the last possible minute. And this despite numerous warnings from the education industry that it would lead to chaos and a huge mess. The result was that he refused to even admit the Non Resident Indians/ Foreign Nationals case, despite one of India's top Supreme Court lawyers, whom we had hired, pleading for our children. Does one stab one's own baby by admitting an error was made where the genuine NRI's were concerned? Obviously not! And so all the affected children, hundreds of them, have been forced to reconcile to the fact that they have lost a year and have hit their books again. The medical application process will soon start for next year in various countries, barring a few for which it is already over for 2017...
Our first guest was from Dar Es Salam, the son of my husband's former colleague. His mother and I are great friends and though it has been eight years since we have met, we have been in constant touch throughout. Their family faced immense tragedy last May and it was only by God's grace that this young man survived the car crash. His older brother was not so fortunate.. (My post: It's over in a heart beat and then a mother's heart bleeds...). The boy I last remembered as a high schooler in his Indian School uniform  in Tanzania from eight years ago was now a young man! Though he declined to stay with us, he did drop in a couple of times during his three day stay in Nairobi and I took him shopping for some entrance exam books he needed (is every one plagued by them?!!)  and it was a sheer delight to interact with him. As we chatted with him, I was struck by how much we all begin resembling our parents, as we grow older. His speech, his expressions, a faint almost unnoticeable south Indian tinge in his accent, all brought his own Dad strongly to my mind and a couple of times I felt as if I had gone back eight years in time and was chatting with my husband's colleague and morning walk partner...His large, animated eyes made me feel as if I was looking at my own friend, his mother. I had to pull myself back into the present and remind myself we were in Nairobi, not Dar, and I no longer had a toddler and an elementary schooler around me! But yes, like it or not, whether biological children or adopted, we seem to become mirror images of our parents, at least in mannerisms and physical appearance, if not in attitudes and behaviour!
Our next guest was my son's Dutch friend who had come all the way from the Netherlands. He and my son along with two other friends had been close friends in school in grade 2, 3 and 4, before he had to move back home as his parents' jobs here ended. Two and a half years ago it had been a very tearful goodbye for all four of the boys, at the farewell party organized by his parents. I remember the boys sitting together on the lawn at the venue, their backs to us all, loathe to say a final goodbye! Frequent Skype chats helped all the boys to keep in touch with their friend in Europe and as a thirteenth birthday gift, he chose to come to Kenya with his mother, who comes here annually as part of her job, so that he could briefly reunite with his friends! Another friend's mother hosted a birthday party for him in the Ethiopian restaurant because he loves the food there and the four friends were over the moon to be together again! His twin sister, on the other hand, chose an Iphone as her birthday gift and stayed back in the Netherlands with her Dad!
It was a delight to have this charming, freshly minted teenager who I've known since he was about to turn eight, come and stay overnight with us. It was as if the intervening two and a half years had never happened and he was still in school with the other boys! He candidly told me he had no friends in the Netherlands yet and I really hope this trip will make him feel more settled in his native land. Making new friends does not mean giving up your old ones, a lesson we all learn if we are expatriates on the go!
As I listened to the boys chattering away nineteen to the dozen, I was struck by how much my son's friend sounded like his Mother! If I closed my eyes, I could believe I was listening to her speak. After two plus years in Holland, a trace of a Dutch accent has definitely crept into the speech of a boy, who when I knew him, had only attended the American school in Nairobi and spoke with an American accent! The boys played cricket,gorged on the Indian lunch and Italian dinner I had made, snacked on junk food, drank hot chocolate and had a Hobbit movie marathon or tried to, till I chased them away to bed at 1:00 am in the morning! A very hard part of expatriate life is saying good bye and it was good bye again the next morning... But we were so glad this child had made this short trip especially to meet his friends and we hope they keep getting such opportunities to meet.
Our American friends who moved to Uganda from Kenya over two years ago came to visit the next day and completed our trio of guests from other countries! Our kids were in the same school though in different grades and had it not been for a bicyle my son had overgrown that I was selling through the school reporter. it is doubtful that we would have met during the short year that they were here. But it was destined that we did meet, became good friends and since we still live on the same continent and the entire family comes to Nairobi when they can, and our husbands travel for work to Nairobi and Kampala, we do manage to meet every few months. We plan to visit each other's native countries when time and funds permit!!
It is hard for people who are firmly rooted in one place to understand what we go through, year in and year out.  While farewells are not easy, technology does make things seem less dismal and the advantage is no matter where in the world you choose to travel, you willl have good friends waiting there for you, just as you will await them in your own country, current and native both....
So who is coming to visit us in Kenya/ India next?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

A NEET Mess! (And Did I Just Create A Homophonic Oxymoron?!)

Remember in my last post I had said tough times were on but I would surely share at a later date as the matter was sub judice? Here's the unfolding of the nightmarish events...
My daughter, along with with many other Non Resident Indian and Foreign National students, was admitted to Kasturba Medical College, Manipal in the state of Karnataka in India, through the 15% quota reserved for students coming in from overseas. When they finally reported for the orientation program and started college, we all heaved a huge sigh of relief because the last few months had been marked by delay, stress and uncertainty regarding medical admissions in India. This was due to a National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, NEET, which had been introduced at literally the last minute, by an order of the Honourable Supreme Court Of India, after a Charitable Trust filed a case to fight corruption in private medical colleges vis a vis medical admissions. Sounds complicated? Wait! It gets worse!
This happened at the very end of April when the All India Medical Entrance Exam, renamed NEET 1, was but a day away. Students and private colleges pressed the panic button and filed counter suits. State governments went ahead with their government college entrance exams but all private colleges were forced to cancel their exams. While this was happening in India, all international students (the International Baccalaureate, the Senior Cambridge, The American High School Diploma with AP) were busy with their own board exams, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them, other than the Indian curriculum schools abroad, the CBSE students, who had finished in March 2016 itself, as is the pattern in India and were watching events unfold back home. These kids were virtually the only overseas NRIs who gave the exam because their schools. being CBSE ones, instructed them to.
The private colleges and a few private petitioners lost the suit but many Chief Ministers went and met the President Of India and explained to him that the State Board students would find it impossible to study for this exam as it was to be especially held again within just two months, since the syllabus differed vastly from the Central syllabus, on which this exam is based. The result of these high level meetings was that an Ordinance was passed by the President, allowing State government colleges to admit students via their own exams just for this year, 2016. In this mad jamboree, no one thought of the Non Resident Indians and Foreign Nationals who were coming from totally different systems and weren't preparing for ANY entrance exam in India, as their admission was based solely on their 12th standard marks.
In keeping with the international pattern for medical admissions, our admission procedure too started way back in December 2015, when we mailed semester one transcripts to medical colleges of our choice back home in India. By April 2015, my daughter had secured provisional admission in all the three medical colleges that she had applied to. It was all a clean, transparent on line procedure, based on merit and within the stimulated frame of time. Confirmed admission would be given after obtaining the prescribed grades in the board exams and paying the fees and after getting the Equivalence certificate from The Association Of Indian Universities in New Delhi, which ensures that they come from recognized schools the world over and equate their results to the Indian CBSE board.
After the NEET became compulsory by May 2016, there were absolutely no instructions given whether it was applicable to students who had done their 12th from outside India. By the end of May 2016, when my daughter finally graduated from school, I called up the college we had originally chosen for my daughter. I was categorically told NO NEET is needed for NRIS but we will not give confirmed admission now but in August 2016, after the NEET results. The second college where she had secured provisional admission too, ten minutes away from my house, did not even bother to reply to my mail dated 2nd June, seeking a clarification regarding NEET. After collecting all her documents from school and getting them endorsed from the Indian High Commission Nairobi, the Ministry Of Education, Nairobi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nairobi, procedures that took ten days, we travelled to India in the second week of June. The NEET exam was now just five weeks away.
Since none of the websites had updated information regarding NEET for genuine international students and though the colleges kept saying verbally NO NEET, we decided to fill the form. Then Manipal, the college ranked in the top three in India, mailed us again though we had refused admission there way back in April 2016, since I wanted my daughter to be closer to our home town.
Since colleges in Maharashtra were not ready to commit to us anymore, we started the process for taking admission there. They categorically told us the exam is NOT needed for genuine Non resident students and Foreign Nationals. Many students had confirmed admissions from April 2016 itself and still others had not even finished their board exams which went on until the end of June. And so we submitted all the documents they asked for, transferred the fees in American Dollars, as is the government rule for these seats and received the CONFIRMED admission letter on 20th July, four days before NEET 2 on 24th July. And which fool gives an entrance exam they aren't prepared for due a completely different system of education and no warning that it's needed, when they have a confirmed admission letter in hand from a top institute? We, like many others, assumed that this sixty plus year old college had properly examined and correctly interpreted the rules for international admissions, which was the case till then, because no clarification had come from any quarters at that point in time.And an earlier judgement had given exemption to the minority quota. Our original choice of college mailed us on 14th July, still insisting there was NO clarity regarding NRIS and the one near the house mailed us on 2nd July, saying they presumed we had filled the form, though they had no instructions yet! Both these mails came after the NEET form filling date was over!
On 4th August, ten days after NEET 2 the Medical Council of India, sent circulars to all the private colleges saying that being NEET qualified was mandatory for ALL admissions, no matter which category. And so the colleges went to their State High Court but kept students and  parents from sixteen different colleges in Karnataka in the dark!
And so we bid farewell to our flesh and blood in September and these bright young minds began college. The colleges lost the case in the High Court on 15th September itself, when orientation was still on, and the parents had not even left the campus. We were infomed by email on 17th September at the end of day, that the HC case had been lost ( we had never been informed there was a case!) and though the HC was sympathetic to the genuine International students, only the Supreme Court of India could take a decision and colleges were directed to approach it. The students admissions were protected only till 30th September 2016.
Then began the mad scramble to save the futures of these children! We are all scattered in different parts of the world. There were students from The United States Of America, Canada, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Eithiopia, the UAE, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia! And that's just my daughter's college. There were students from fifteen other colleges in that state alone, with many others scatttered all over India. We formed a Whats App group and began brain storming. We had barely a few days before the case would come up before the Honourable Apex court in Delhi.
We decided to join together for an impleadment along with the Special Leave Petition of the Colleges as we wanted to point out that our admisssions had been based on merit and our kids were genuinely from other systems of education. We were not the ones who had 'bought' the left over NRI seats without giving the NEET exam, despite studying in India, as is the norm in Medical colleges. These 'Management seats' are sold for astronomical sums.
We, a core group of ten parents, pooled in our money, hired lawyers, put together an appeal and prayed really really hard. The cost ran into lakhs of rupees. What stood out the most was that seven out of these ten students were girls and I LOVED the way their Dads FOUGHT for their daughters. These are all super successful, busy men, Directors and CEOs of global companies, but everything was put aside for their girls! If we had more such fathers in India, female foeticide would be a thing of the past! We had Gold Honour students, a winner of President Obama's award for academic excellence, AP scholars with distinction, school toppers all with super high GPAs and all had had other offers which they had turned down to study in India! We put together all these documents to present to the esteemed court, including the ones from the colleges which said no NEET was needed for this category of admissions. A couple of parents flew back to India to attend the hearing, when they had just got back home after settling their kids...
On 28th September 2016, the Colleges lost the case and along with them, we did too. Our children were asked to leave college after spending two glorious weeks there. These heart broken teenagers who had been very brave till then, believing the system would give them justice, were completely crushed! Parents had to fly back to India to pick up their kids and my mother travelled from our home town to pick up my daughter. Hostel rooms that had been brightly decorated, had to be packed up, white coats that had been barely worn had to be discarded, books that they had just started studying from had to be bundled up and put away, may be for ever...It was the end of a dream for absolutely NO fault of theirs. They had become the latest victims of a system that was confused about the way forward after hastily implementing an exam. This does happen in incredible India!!
What the people in power do not realize is that medical admission applications, even for 2017 are already over in most countries that have good colleges! The UKCAT for medical admission is over and applications for NEXT August will close next week. The South African Entrance medical college applications and the Australian ones for February 2017 closed by 30th June 2016! Our children now have simply no where to go and are looking at losing a year with no idea where they will get in next year..America does not offer a direct medical college entry. They want to be where the best are and do not want the Russian and Chinese colleges. They want what they had! India, this year.
We have tried very hard to reach our own government but have had NO success. That is our only hope now. We know we are not vote banks since we cannot vote from outside the country, but we do believe in this government and did entrust our children to our country, only to have it all thrown back in our face. The colleges quickly replaced our children by converting our NRI/ FN seats to NRI sponsored with NEET, which means you have someone from out side the country pay your fees in dollars. In fact, they started the process even before the case came up for hearing by placing adverts in national newspapers. In this war, should our children be the sacrificial lambs?
If anyone can put us in touch with the powers that be in Delhi, we will be very grateful. Our children did not even get a fair hearing and were summarily dismissed by the law as well as by the colleges.
If a Foreign National living in India on a visa can be given a seat by the Government because she is not eligible to appear for the NEET, why not extend the same courtesy to students from over seas with those beautiful blue passports and to those with OCI cards, who were told NEET is not needed, until it was applied in retrospect?
Please share my post if you can. I STILL believe in my government and that it will intervene for it's future citizens.


                                How clearly all of us were told NEET does not apply to our category!

While I'm happy for this girl and wish her the very best, we want the NRI/FN case to be looked into too by our Honourable Minister and Prime Minister.

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

                                               My Alma Mater, St.Helena's School, Pune. As we went back and forth on the Core ...